There are 8 executive functioning skills every child should have impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization. One way of approaching these skills may not work for another child. Flexible thinking skills are one of the biggest struggles I find when working with children.
What Are Flexible Thinking Skills?
Being flexible is the ability to adapt to a change in plans because of a setback, a new schedule, or anything unexpected. Doctors describe flexible thinking skills as the ability to think about things differently, and it uses two skills, flexible thinking and set-shifting. They call it cognitive flexibility.
In my terms, the flexible thinking meaning is when children can think about something differently and shift their thinking in response to a switch in rules, activities, and new/unexpected situations.
Many children who struggle with executive functioning struggle with flexible thinking. They may have “inflexible thinking.” This is where they get stuck or feel they can only do something one way. “It’s this way or the highway” type of thinking. They are often unable to handle the change or understand there is a different way to complete the task or plans.
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You may notice a child is struggling with flexibility when they throw a tantrum or have an outburst because of a change in plans. If you do not see any outbursts or tantrums, the child may start to ask many questions.
They might ask:
- Why are we doing this now?
- What happened?
- Why can’t we do what I wanted to do?
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These questions often come about because they don’t want any changes in their schedule and want to know exactly what is happening.
Why is Flexible Thinking Important?
Flexible thinking is an essential social skill. Children and adults need to be able to think flexibly to get along with others, help groups be more effective, help solve problems, and even try new things or new ways of doing things.
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Flexible thinking skills seem more critical than ever because 21st-century workplace skills are starting to revolve around these skills. Being able to have a flexible mindset and being able to look at a problem in many different ways is an essential skill needed in the modern workplace and classroom setting.
Small Flexible Thinking Activities
So here’s my challenge to you. I want you to observe your kiddos, whether they’re really little, in elementary or even high school, and see how they do with flexibility. Are they able to adapt well at the last minute to changes in plans?
And if you see that they’re not, start building in small little changes in their ability to be flexible.
If they need a fork and a knife to eat their dinner, try “accidentally” putting a spoon. This small change will not interfere with their lives for the next 9 years. You can fix the spoon mistake quickly, but you are still practicing little micro wins at being flexible.
Silly Jokes and Riddles
Try adding jokes and riddles to your daily drive to school or your walk to the OT room. Riddles and jokes that play on the meaning of words can be confusing to kids who struggle with flexible thinking.
An example of a confusing joke may be: “Why are fish so smart? Because they live in schools.” After saying the joke discuss how the word school has two meanings in this joke.
What’s This? Game
Find everyday objects from around your house or classroom and discuss how the objects could be other things. A funnel may be a birthday hat, and a stack of books may become a bridge.
All these mini activities will give children the opportunity to be flexible. These activities are helping them practice for the real thing, like when a friend cancels a play date or having to change to virtual school because of a pandemic (Hoping this never happens again!).
Go ahead. Observe your child or students, and remember to keep flexible thinking skills in mind. If you see them struggling with flexibility, try some activities above.
Need More Support With Flexible Thinking Skills?
If you want more help with building flexible thinking skills in your children/students or other executive function skills, check out my
Real Life Executive Solutions Strategies workshop!